How to Write an Effective Reference Letter
I wish I’d actually been taught how to write reference letters, rather than learning on my own. I am certain my first few letters were weak, and I apologize to the first 2 or 3 students who asked for reference letters from me.
As someone who struggled with this particular genre, I have three major pieces of advice about i) content, ii) bias, and iii) whether to write it at all.
Before you begin writing. When you wrote your own job application letters, you made sure they were tailored to the school you applied to. Do the same thing for people asking you for reference letters - tailor their letter to the school/job they are applying to.
Make sure that you get the candidate’s CV, the job description, and any other information you think will help you write a good letter. You can even ask them what they think matters, what they think should be highlighted, or what they are the most proud of. Get as much information about them that you think will help their case.
Ask the applicant for the submission guidelines and follow them. This includes deadlines (missing one could mean they can’t be shortlisted), whether it should be PDF or physical letter, and where to send it.
Introduction. Explain how you know the candidate. If they were in your classes, if they were your TA/RA, or if you were their advisor, explain the nature of your connection so that the committee can evaluate how well you really can speak to the candidate’s accomplishments.
Body of the letter. Make sure you always include specific examples of the skills and qualities you ascribe to them. Think of examples from your classes, from their research projects or from their work for you. Remain positive. Emphasize that you think this person is a strong candidate for the job at the beginning and end of the letter. (And if you can’t do this, think about whether you should be writing this letter in the first place.) You want to give the candidate the best shot at getting the job.
Don’t forget to add your own contact information, including email address and/or telephone number at the end of the letter.
Reference letters are full of gender bias. I strongly recommend that you double or triple check your letters for job candidates. Despite the myth of academia as meritocracy, bias against women still very much exists. If you want to aim for something closer to meritocracy, make sure you are truly promoting the best by writing the best possible letter for both men and women.
Stay focused on publications, research and accomplishments. Make sure you use titles and surnames for both men and women. Letters written on behalf of men are 4 times as likely to have publications mentioned, and twice as likely to mention research more than once than letters written on behalf of women. Letters for men are more likely to mention accomplishments (his research/skills/career), whereas women’s letters are more likely to mention effort (hardworking), or evoke stereotypes, like ‘caring’, ‘compassionate’ or ‘caring’.
Don’t raise doubts about the candidate. Negative comments are twice as common in letters for women and letters for men are 16% longer than letters for women. Letters for women are also 2.5 times more likely to have weak endorsements (she can do that job) vs. ringing endorsements (she’s the best for the job).
Don’t mention personal life. Letters for women are seven times more likely to mention it than letters for men.
Here are some adjectives to use: successful, excellent, accomplished, outstanding, skilled, knowledgeable, insightful, resourceful, confident, ambitious, independent, intellectual
Here are some adjectives to avoid (always check your letters for these and take them out): caring, compassionate, hard-working, conscientious, dependable, diligent, dedicated, tactful, interpersonal, warm, helpful
Should you say yes to writing the letter?
Don’t say yes to everyone who asks you for letters out of obligation. If you can’t write a strong letter, you will only hurt their chances. The best way to address this is to say something like "I do not feel I would be the best person to write you a recommendation." If they press, explain that you are unable to provide letters for people except under certain conditions. You don’t have explain what they are.
Need help with a reference letter? Want to make sure it’s bias-free, positive, and formatted correctly? Quick Brown Fox can help you get that letter in tip-top shape. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480)-359-7485
Trix, F & Psenka, C. 2003. Exploring the color of glass: Letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse & Society.
Madera, JM, Hebl, MR, & Martin, RC. 2009. Gender and letters of recommendation for Academia: Agentic and communal differences. Journal of Applied Psychology.